Tipping the Scales

How Lawyers Rank Law Schools

by Jeff Schmitt on

Judge

A degree is only as good as a school’s reputation.

Bet you’ve heard that saying. And it’s especially true for new grads. Starting out, fellow attorneys won’t regard you as a rising star with a deep hunger and a high ceiling. They’ll view you as a Duke or Tulsa grad…and everything they associate with that school.

If you hold a J.D. from Yale, they’ll assume that you’ll be addressed as “Your honor” someday. Berkeley? You’re probably some do-gooder activist out to save another coastline. If you chose Notre Dame, they’ll wonder why you couldn’t get into an Ivy League school (even though only a quarter of Notre Dame applicants ever get accepted).

It’s natural. People need to categorize and compare others. And law schools, however diverse, still have their labels. Sure, a state school education is often just as good as a private one (just look at the bar passage rates). But school reputations open doors (or carry stigmas). And it is legal professionals – lawyers and judges – whose impressions ultimately matter.

THE BASICS OF THE U.S. NEW RANKING METHODOLOGY 

That may be why their opinions weigh so heavily in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Here, U.S. News ties 60 percent of a school’s rank to empirical factors like median LSATs, median undergraduate GPAs, acceptance rates, placement rates, expenditures-per-student, student-faculty ratios, bar passage rates, and library resources.

However, 25 percent of a school’s ranking is derived from surveys conducted with law school administrators and faculty. And surveys with lawyers and judges account for another 15 percent.

Here’s how it works: Each fall, U.S. News sends surveys out to hiring partners, practicing attorneys, and judges.  Using a five-point scale, with one being “marginal” and five being “outstanding,” these respondents evaluate 194 ABA accredited law schools. In cases where respondents are unfamiliar with a particular school, they simply answer “don’t know.” On average, a third of the sample returns the survey.

THE UNDERPERFORMING & OVERPERFORMING LAW SCHOOLS 

Bob Morse, the director of research at U.S. News, has also pioneered a methodology to measure how law schools are viewed by their peers. He divides schools into two categories – “Underperformers” and “Overperformers” using a simple formula.

After ranking schools from highest to lowest on assessment scores from lawyers and judges, he subtracts a school’s overall rank from its rank among legal professionals. A positive number indicates that a school is an “overperformer,” while a negative number reflects an “underperformer.” In Morse’s words, an overperforming school has a “reputation among its [legal] peers [that] has not kept pace with what it has achieved in the underlying academic indicators. This could be because academic reputation is a lagging indicator – it can take time for a school’s [legal] peers to understand the real progress of a university.” Conversely, an “underperforming” school’s ranking may be artificially inflated based on the subjective peer assessments of the [attorneys and judges] who were polled.

A SCHOOL’S REPUTATION PRECEDES ITS ALUMNI

In short, these surveys often measure branding and bias as much as quality. Although these opinion ratings aren’t tethered to any empirical data, they offer great value to current and future law students.

First, they remind us that a school’s reputation precedes its alumni. Familiarity means comfort – and law schools with strong outreach and marketing ultimately grab greater (and more positive) mindshare. If a school receives a higher overall ranking than legal professionals give it, it suggests that a school has an image problem. If a school’s marks from the legal community are higher than its overall ranking, you can be certain that a correction is coming. Perception may be reality, but data is destiny.  

What’s more, it reflects the micro nature of law school rankings when it comes to surveys. People make inferences and associations through observation. If one alum possesses a particular trait, skill, or intellect, you have a precedent. If two alums display it, you have a pattern. Beyond that, everyone is a prototype.  In other words, the characteristics and actions of a few alumni reverberate on the job prospects and leeway given to those who follow, even if they graduated a decade later.

Credibility isn’t always established in a court or conference room. Right or wrong, it can also stem from lunches, golf outings, and children’s ball games. People are attracted to those who are most like them…or who they aspire to be. If a small sample fits the mold, they get the higher marks. It’s as simple as that.

THE TOP 20: YALE TUMBLES OUT OF THE TOP SPOT 

So what are the differences between the overall rankings and the rankings from the legal community? Let’s start with U.S. News’ Top 20 schools. Here, four schools are considered better than or equal to perennial #1 Yale? Wondering who? You might be surprised. Check out our results for the answer:

(See following pages for full analysis and tables)

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  • Order_of_the_Coitus

    Avoid law school like the plague!!! That is, unless $200,000+ of non-dischargeable student loan debt, no job, and living in your parents’ basement is your idea of fun. Law school is a scam.

  • T

    No Fordham? Odd.

    • Jeff-Schmitt

      Hi, T. Thanks for writing. Good question. I didn’t include Fordham as its overall rank (#36) was nearly identical to its survey rank (#37). Fordham received a 3.5 score from legal professionals, down from a 3.6 score it received in last year’s U.S. News survey.

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